Information as Power

Another article that caught my eye in this month’s Military Review was this one by Dr. Cora Sol Goldstein (.pdf) titled, A Strategic Failure: American Information Control Policy in Occupied Iraq. It’s a fascinating read about the ways in which our decision to define the mission in Iraq as a liberation, as opposed to an occupation of a defeated enemy, led to lax media policies that encouraged a free press and undermined our monopoly on information. From an operational perspective, the article makes perfect sense, even if it is downright jarring to an American ear unused to the idea of “freedom of the press” as a bad thing:

Once Saddam was toppled, the number of Iraqi publications exploded, reaching more than 200. With coalition forces failing to shut down or secure Iraqi printing presses, everyone who had access to a press began publishing. . .Unfortunately, this spontaneous explosion of media, coupled with the lack of a rigorous American information control policy, was quickly exploited by groups opposed to the coalition. . .

. . .In July 2003, CPA head Paul Bremer III publicly asserted that the coalition was not limiting free speech in Iraq. . . The general idea was that the American message of “truth” would, by itself, prevail over alternative political messages in post-Saddam Iraq. . .

Occasionally, the CPA did exert some measure of control over radical, anti-American propaganda. . .In sum, the rare cases of post-production censorship did not amount to an effective information-control program.

Goldstein acknowledges that part of the difficulty resides in the transformed media landscape that renders access easier and control more difficult. (To get a sense of just how crowded the media landscape in occupied Iraq really is, take a look at this .pdf download file, The War of Images and Ideas, describing the eye-opening proliferation of Sunni insurgent media, both print, broadcast and online.)

But she points out that Saddam Hussein managed to do a pretty good job controlling what Iraqis were exposed to, and she contrasts the permissive American approach in Iraq with post-War Germany, where the integration of media into the transformational architecture of American governance was almost totalitarian in its control:

. . .In 1945, OMGUS allowed the German population very limited freedom and exerted an unprecedented degree of political control. Joint Chiefs of Staff Directive 1067 (JCS 1067), the military directive that informed OMGUS policy from 1945 to 1947, explicitly rejected the idea that the U.S. was liberating a population held captive by a dictatorship. It stated that Germany “will not be occupied for the purpose of liberation but as a defeated enemy nation.” According to JCS 1067, Germans had to be controlled and monitored and their political, religious, and cultural activities approved by the American military authorities. . .

Now, there’s a lot going on here, including the question of liberation vs. occupation, some of which I’ll tease out in another post. But the main reason I’m flagging this article is to point out the centrality to the military’s current strategic thinking of narrative, the war of ideas, and information as power. I’ve already mentioned it in regards to Gen. Petraeus’ widely acclaimed counterinsurgency manual, where cultural narrative is portrayed as a contested field on which competing versions of events vie for primacy. But there’s also last summer’s U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication (.pdf), issued by the State Dept. Then there’s Col. Dennis Murphy’s Army War College monograph (.pdf) on the history of propaganda and the need for an integrated understanding of information as power from last autumn’s issue of Parameters. And more recently, there’s this February’s Center for Strategic Leadership compendium (.pdf), Information as Power, a 200-page collection of essays. And there is most certainly more to follow.

The problem with this kind of emphasis on information control is not only that using propaganda abroad runs the risk of it filtering back into domestic consumption. Nor is it just the American cultural antipathy to a controlled or manipulated press that makes Goldstein’s article such a jarring read, and that explains the domestic backlash against the DoD’s post-invasion campaign to plant stories in the Iraqi press using the Lincoln Group as a subcontractor. It’s also the temptation that these sorts of techniques exercise, once perfected, on those that wield them: Jacques Ellul’s maxim that an existing technology rarely goes unused.

This may very well be another area where a democracy is better off fighting with one hand behind its back. Be that as it may, limiting the Army’s (and CIA’s) use of information operations is not only unrealistic, it’s also puts us at a severe disadvantage, as Col. Murphy pointed out:

This conundrum, where the United States must fight using propaganda but faces internal criticism and backlash whenever it does, allows for an information environment that favors an adversary bent on exploitation with his own strategic propaganda.

But at the very least, the discussion should be broadly aired and aggressively challenged in order to ensure that whatever strategic approach is eventually adopted doesn’t offend the American sensibility of a free and unmanipulated press.